Fake eggs. Exploding watermelons. Killer baby milk formula. These are just some of the Chinese food scandals that made U.S. headlines over the last few years.
Last month, meanwhile, the Department of Agriculture approved four Chinese companies to process and export poultry to the U.S. While the chickens must originate from the U.S. and Canada, this provision could be expanded to Chinese poultry in the future. Tuesday, the shareholders of U.S. pork giant Smithfield Foods Inc. voted overwhelmingly in favor of the sale of the company to Chinese firm Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd. Earlier in September, the U.S. Committee on Foreign Investment removed government hurdles holding back this transaction.
Policy-wise, it seems that the U.S. has become more open to loosening restrictions on food trade with China. Compare this year to 2008, when “less than 1% of the U.S. food supply [came] from China.”
In the face of food-safety failures, however, it’s not surprising that the American public does not have high confidence in Chinese products. In fact, the Chinese populace would probably agree.
In a 2012 survey conducted by the Committee of 100, a nonprofit group composed of Chinese Americans, 79% of Americans believed that food contamination scandals have decreased their confidence in Chinese products, showing an increase of 9% from five years prior. On the other hand, policymakers actually show a rise in confidence, which might explain the recent decisions.
From 2007 to 2012, the Committee of 100 survey shows that the Chinese public's level of confidence in Chinese-made products didn’t change much, while opinion leaders saw a significant drop in confidence. According to the 2013 Pew Global Attitudes survey, however, about four in 10 Chinese people saw food safety as a major problem, up from about 12% in 2008. In particular, for young high-income people living in urban areas, food safety has become one of the most important issues.
There are two possible explanations for Chinese and Americans opinions aligning on food safety. Thanks to the internet, stories about dead animals floating down rivers and babies growing breasts after drinking hormone-laced milk have spread far and wide within China and to the world beyond. More people know about these problems, and more people are angry about them.
With China's overall rapid economic growth in the past few decades, the general populace’s standard of living has also increased significantly, so now more Chinese people have the luxury to worry about things like pollution and food safety. Looking at the Pew survey breakdown, more Chinese people of the middle- and high-income brackets believe that consumer issues are a serious concern than do those with lower income. Now that the average Chinese standard of living is coming close to that of an average American, people are starting to worry about similar issues.
What does this mean for the future? American meat and poultry producers have long hoped to break into the massive Chinese market, according to Bloomberg. It appears that they are succeeding, which means that Chinese consumers can look forward to more imported products. American consumers, in the meantime, will be buying chicken processed in China without knowing it and will probably see more Chinese products in the future.
Now that the American and Chinese populaces will share parts of their food supply, it’s imperative for both to be vigilant about the quality of products they consume.